Part 3. North Korean Defector Poets

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byKang Jeong Gu

Poetic Expression in North Korean Defector Culture


Significance of Defector Poets

Mass migration prompted by the great famine of the 1990s has transformed the status of North Korean defectors in South Korean society from that of a strategic tool in the ideological wars to a social minority in need of assimilation. The unofficial count of North Koreans crossing the border ranges from 100,000 to 300,000, with the number entering South Korea now well over 10,000. In these numbers, defectors have not only lost their ideological influence as living proof of the superiority of the Southern regime, but are now reduced to a cultural minority whose past existence is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This article is an attempt to examine North Korean defector culture through examples of North Korean defector poetry. Key examples of this genre published to date include Jang Jin-sung’s I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won (, 2008), Kim Ok-ae’s Rice Porridge Incident (Sam Woo Publishing Co., 2005), Kim Dae-ho’s Confessions of a Naked Poem (Living Books, 2003), and Kim Seong-min’s Why Are Songs about Home Always Sad? (Dashi, 2004).


Multi-Layers of Defector Psychology

The two major themes in North Korean defector poetry are defection and migration. In North Korean defector poetry, this refers to the poet’s thoughts on defection, the specific circumstances that prompted the poets to defect and why they chose to go to the South. On the surface these thoughts fall into a clearly pro-South, anti-North category, but the underlying thought process of North Korean defectors appears to have changed little from the indoctrination expected to come out of the North Korean regime.

To take the poetry of Jang Jin-sung as an example of pro-South, anti-North sentiment on a surface level, it can be argued that North Korean defectors antagonize the North and idolize the South in that they did in fact make the dangerous escape to the South and typically have no problem justifying this choice to themselves. They are strongly against the North Korean regime and for the ideals of liberty and freedom in the South. While the practical reason of hunger is usually their direct motivation for coming South, the choice of South Korea implies an affirmation of the South and a rejection of the North. This psychology is readily observed in North Korean defector poetry.

In a footnote to his poem “Palace,” Jang Jing-sung notes: “The Kim Jong-il regime exhausted the nation’s coffers to build Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun while three million people starved to death. If they had used that money to buy rice, they could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” From this we can infer that “Palace” refers to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and that the poet disapproves of the political and economic repercussions of its construction. The poet emphasizes that North Korean starvation is directly linked to the political choices of the party in the lines, “Three million starved to death / To bury one dead man.” This idea that the people of North Korea starved for political reasons, and that most of the poems in this collection deal with starvation, indicates that the North Korean defector poet is strongly anti-North.

Surface declarations of absolute affirmation towards the South, as in the poems of Kim Ok-ae, reveal an interesting twist. Kim’s poem “I Was So Surprised” shows the boundless enthusiasm toward the South, which is doubtless familiar to those who have studied North Korean literature. The poet is infinitely grateful to the government for she is living 201439in “a place where a perfect life is possible” and “the home of my dreams, like in the movies.” She said the facilities are like a vacation home provided and waiting for them. This idea is strikingly similar to the underlying notion of North Korean literature that everything the people enjoy in life is provided by the Party and the Great Leader.

This implies that the poet is still used to the ideological way of thinking acquired while living in the North. On the surface level, North Korean defectors profess to praise the South and denounce the North, but on a deeper level they have merely switched the South for the North in their ways of understanding and adapting a regime’s ideology for their own use.


Migrant as Cultural Minority

The instant that North Korean defectors migrate to South Korea they become cultural minorities. Viewed as a group to be assimilated into South Korean society based on ideas of ethnic nationalism and brotherhood, they accordingly receive assistance from the government and various religious groups and non-profit organizations. In the process, however, they experience othering in the form of covert discrimination and violence by the cultural majority. This aspect of the migrant’s reality, being othered as a cultural minority, is well documented in North Korean defector poetry.

Kim Dae-ho uses disrobing in his poetry as one way of responding to discrimination and violence against North Korean defectors. Kim Dae-ho’s poem “Disaster,” for instance, is accompanied by a nude photograph presumably of the poet. Nudity is a symbolic performance. Considering that the majority of poems in the collection refer to the pain and hardship of living as a migrant in South Korean society, the act of disrobing can be understood as an intention to be seen as a naked human being, that is, not as “the other” that needs assimilating, but as a human being.

Another way that North Korean defector poetry responds to discrimination is by revealing a longing for home, a universally relatable sentiment. Kim Seong-min’s poem “Potato Village Girl” shows that North Korean defectors also view their ancestral home with nostalgia, countering the cultural majority’s gaze that persists in viewing North Korea as a purely negative place. The hometown of migrants is no different from the hometown of the cultural majority in that it is a place that belongs to their past but remains their point of reference when explaining their background or origin. This goes beyond nostalgia in the sense that it is directly connected to one’s being-in-the world. The line “Now that I’m of marrying age” from “Potato Village Girl” is noteworthy in that the narrator looks to his hometown to explain his desire to get married. The poem’s narrator concludes that he wants to get married because the “gal” from his hometown who is “getting ready to be married” “raising potatoes” appears in his “dream from last night.” This is the attitude of one who connects his motivation or reason for being with memories of his hometown. In other words, the North Korean hometown functions as an ontological space to explain and understand one’s identity. 


by Kang Jeong Gu
Kyung Hee University Research Institute of Humanities 


This essay has been adapted from the author’s article: “Poetic Accommodation of North Korean Immigrants: Focusing on the Conception and Characteristics of Their Poetry.” Foreign Literature Studies 35 (2009.8): pp. 9-28.